The Language of Disability

The language of disability and political correctness

The way we talk to or about people is important because it reflects our attitudes and assumptions. Ideally we should refer to people in the language that they prefer. However, terminology changes from time to time because certain words and phrases take on pejorative connotations. For instance, the word ”spasticity”  which is a perfectly acceptable medical term referring to a constant and unwanted contraction of one or more muscle groups as a result of a stroke or other injury, became used firstly to refer to people with cerebral palsy but then became used as an insult. It is now only used in medical contexts.

Unfortunately such downgrading of terms is a phenomena we have to live with and so new words and phrases are coined not so much as a matter of political correctness or fashion, but because the old ones can no longer be used to reflect respect.

In Australia people with disability want to be acknowledged as people first. 

It should be noted however, that the same terminology does not necessarily apply in other countries. In the UK, for instance, they prefer the phrase “disabled people”.

Use of the following terms and phrases is correct at the time of writing:

What does it mean?

What do we say? 

Don’t use Acceptable Alternative

Abnormal, subnormal (negative terms that imply failure to reach perfection)

Specify the disability

Afflicted with or suffering from  (most people with disability don't see themselves as afflicted)

Say "the person has...(the disability)"  

Birth defect, also congenital defect, deformity

Say "the person with  disability since birth", "person with congenital disability"

 Blind (the), visually impaired (the)

Say "person who is blind", "person with vision impairment or low vision"

Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound (a wheelchair provides mobility not restriction)

Say "uses a wheelchair" or is a "wheelchair user"

Cripple, crippled (these terms convey a negative image of a twisted, ugly body. Avoid)

Say "has physical or mobility disability"

Deaf (the)

Only appropriate when referring to the Deaf community; say "person who is deaf or hard of hearing"

Deaf and dumb (the inability to hear and speak does not imply intellectual disability. Avoid)

Say "deaf or hard of hearing" ;

“Non-verbal” is a more acceptable way of indicating that someone has no speech.

Defective, deformed (degrading terms. Avoid)

Specify the disability 

Disabled (the) 

Say "people with disability"; "the disability community"


Say "person with epilepsy"

Fit, attack, spell

Say "seizure"

Handicapped (the)

Say "person with disability" unless referring to an environmental or attitudinal barrier, in such cases "person with disability who is handicapped by…" is appropriate.

Insane (also lunatic, maniac, neurotic, psycho, psychotic, schizophrenic, unsound mind and others are derogatory terms. Avoid)

Say "person with psychiatric disability”; “person with a mental illness” or a specific condition.

Invalid (the literal sense of the word is "not valid". Avoid)

Say "person with  disability"

Mentally retarded (also defective, feeble minded, imbecile, moron and retarded are offensive terms. Avoid)

Say "person with  intellectual disability"

Mongol (outdated and derogatory)

Say "has Down Syndrome".

Patient (only use in context of doctor/patient relationship or in hospital)

Say "person with disability". 

Physically/intellectually/vertically challenged, differently abled, (ridiculous euphemisms for disability. Avoid)

Say "person with disability"

Spastic (usually refers to a person with cerebral palsy or who has uncontrollable spasms. Derogatory, often term of abuse, should never be used as a noun)

Say "person with disability".

Suffers from, sufferer, stricken with (Not all people with disability actually suffer. These terms should not be used indiscriminately.)

Say "person with disability".

Normal (implies people with disability are abnormal)

Say “people who are not disabled”

Disabled parking/toilet (implies the parking spot or toilet are broken)

Say “disability accessible parking/toilet”

Special (demeaning and childlike)

Say “person with disability”